Indy Street Lights Still Burning

October 17, 2011

For release Oct. 19 and thereafter (680 words)

Rummaging around in my purse for quarters to feed a parking meter Friday, I muttered something under my breath about City Hall. As a result of Mayor Greg Ballard’s 2010 lease agreement with a private vendor, I not only pay more to park on city streets but have to check my watch to determine if it’s free or not. I’m out $10 since the deal took effect.

In Highland Park, Mich., citizens are without streetlights. When the city couldn’t make good on a $4-million unpaid bill, DTE Energy removed 1,400 light poles. With fewer lights burning, the city cut its monthly utility bill from $62,000 to $15,000. Citizens are worried that crime will shoot up.

This is a real-life tale of two cities. One came up with a clever and painless way to generate revenues during tough times; the other threw up its hands and has gone running to state and federal taxpayers for help getting their lights back.

Some credit must go to Mayor Ballard, but this column is not an endorsement. It’s a neutral observation that Indianapolis is hanging tough during this recession.

Credit also goes to a political ethos that is bipartisan and goes back generations: Don’t spend more than you take in; don’t waste money on non-essentials; and when things get tough, look for creative sources other than taxpayers.

We do waste money, which I am reminded of every Sunday during football season. A lot of folks who’ve never been to a Colts game pay a tax every time they buy a burger to fund maintenance and operating costs of a stadium built with tax dollars for millionaire athletes. No mayor yet has had the guts to say no to professional sports.

In relative terms, though, Indianapolis is prosperous. The city lost $26 million this year due to property-tax caps set by the 2008 legislature and almost twice that in local income taxes due to the recession, with little noticeable effect. The Ballard administration has trimmed 5 percent from department budgets every year, made wise use of reserves and found new income sources, such as the parking-meter lease, which brought in $20-million upfront and a share in future revenues.

This is in sharp contrast to Highland Park, which is counting on Congress to bail them out. Or Chicago where Mayor Rahm Emanuel is dealing with a $636-million deficit after a decade of red-ink budgets incurred by his predecessor. Nearly a third of the nation’s cities laid off workers this year. More than half canceled or delayed infrastructure projects. Topeka, Kan., decriminalized domestic-violence cases because it can no longer afford to prosecute them. Harrisburg, Pa., filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection.

The attitude du jour is to run to the courts for relief or to Congress for a handout. Or to blame forces beyond a city’s control. That approach was used in a September study by researchers at Michigan State University titled, “Long-term Crisis and Systemic Failure: Taking the Fiscal Stress of America’s Older Cities Seriously.”

The authors, who presented Flint, Mich., as a case study of problems facing cities in the Rust Belt, cited the usual suspects: the decline of the auto industry, rising pension costs, the shifting of costs and mandates from federal and state governments.

And they offered this useless conclusion: “The national tone that has encouraged a belief that services can be provided without recognizing and funding them has created a political climate that has made it virtually a political death sentence for any politician or candidate to say we would have to pay more and get less.”

They should come here. Yes, our economy is more diversified than Flint’s, but it has faced down the same problems and done more with less.

Ballard is the most recent in a string of mayors from both parties who have understood that fiscal discipline is priority one. How lucky we are in this election season to be debating privatized parking meters instead of cowering in our homes because we are afraid to go out on dark streets.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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